Refugee Crisis: Pushbacks and harsh sentences for Refugees


Human rights activists protest over push backs in Athens, Greece.

© picture alliance / | Nikolas Georgiou

Over the previous years and due to the refugee crisis, the Greek islands became known worldwide. More and more people were arriving on the islands trying to escape from the Syrian war while others grab this opportunity to come to Europe for financial or political reasons. Many things have changed since the beginning of the crisis in 2015. The number of people has been decreased, the flows are not so often and numerous and the camps have more available facilities to host migrants and asylum seekers. However, the current national and European policies continue to promote deficiencies and hardships for refugees. Two of the main current issues are the increasing allegations of pushbacks and the numerous trials against refugees on the Greek islands.

International Campaign

More and more international and humanitarian organizations, report and analyze wrongdoings and unclear policies that the Greek government uses to deal with the refugees. In this vein, an initiative of MEPs, supported by journalists and civil society agents to provide awareness regarding the situation on the Greek islands, has already started last year. Several MEPs and almost 400 activists, initiated the campaign with the title “A fair trial for Mohammad”.

As a continuation of this campaign, a group of activists, reporters, and MEPs attended the Three-member Criminal Court of Appeal in Northern Aegean on Thursday 7 April, where the trial of Amir Zahiri and Akif Rasouli was postponed for a second time. They are accused of illegal transfer of migrants and entrance into the country. Hence, the symbolic message from the personal stories of Amir and Akif is to promote the basic issues of the refugee crisis, the lack of strategic Greek, and European migration policy, and the hardships that refugees face on the Greek islands.

Trials of Refugees

To begin with, Mohammad, a Somalian refugee who came to Greece with a boat from Turkey and saved 33 refugees, has been convicted of 142 years in prison for trafficking. The case became internationally known and has raised the concern of International Human Rights and Migration Organizations. The same happened with two Afghan refugees Amir Zahiri and Akif Rasouli who have been sentenced to 50 years each. Arguably, these cases are some examples of thousands of other refugees convicted every day in Greek courts.

More precisely, the Council Directive 2002/90/EC, which defines the facilitation of unauthorized entry, transit, and residence, and the Greek law 4251/2014 (30), which defines the sentences for people who transfer illegal migrants within the country have shaped the sorrowful reality with refugees convicted on Greek jails for years. This situation has been worsening over the last years and many organizations and journalists are referring to that as the “criminalization of refugees”. It is evident, that the existing legislative framework on the European and Greek level is being used ineffectively without actually punishing the smugglers but the refugees.

Hence, a crucial topic right now is the fact that the traffickers abandon refugees in the sea, and when they arrive on the Greek islands, the refugees that had to drive the boat to not be drowned are accused as traffickers for facilitating the entrance of refugees in the country. This is part of the Migration Policy of the Government of New Democracy in Greece, which has raised the outcry of many international organizations and civil society actors that focus their work on refugees. Therefore harsh sentences, MEPs had already informed Margaritis Skoinas, who coordinates the Commission’s work on a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and the Commission of Home Affairs YIva Johansson.

As it is referred to in a recent article in Guardian, Athens sought to crack down on human trafficking rings along the Turkish coast with draconian legislation. People smugglers were handed unprecedentedly, with penalties ranging from 10 years for each trafficked person onboard to life imprisonment if deaths occurred on the journey. Human Rights Lawyers Alexandros Georgoulis and Dimitris Choulis, argue that “casting refugees as traffickers is symptomatic of a wider policy aimed squarely at preventing men, women, and children from attempting to make such journeys.”

Pushbacks on the Greek islands

The second crucial topic right now is the so-called “pushbacks of refugees”. Over the last two years, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is urging Greece to investigate multiple reports of pushbacks by Greek authorities at the country’s sea and land borders, possibly returning migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey after they had reached Greek territory or territorial waters.

As the report of UNHCR argues, refugees face obstacles at every step of their journey. First, Greek authorities have maneuvered to physically keep people away from Greek land. Second, the government has adopted laws and policies that undermine protections owed to asylum seekers. Third, it has withheld adequate integration support from those to whom it grants refugee status.

Taking all these into consideration, and having in mind the new refugee flows from Ukraine it is understandable, that the refugee crisis is still a valid and crucial topic today. As liberals, we cannot close our eyes to human rights violations, unfair trials, and mistreatment of refugees. Hence, we need to promote initiatives and cases that are trying to provide awareness for such cases. Therefore, in order to safeguard individual and human rights in our societies, we need to focus our policies on a common European strategy of asylum-seeker procedures` and most importantly integration of this population into our societies.